As the rhythm of the dog days of summer begins to fall away in favor of full-fledged pennant races around Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals continue to comfortably hold on to an eight-game lead in the National League East. Directly behind them is Miami Marlins, a team that has outdone the vaunted New York Mets, ironically in a year the league’s finest pundits labeled as the ascendance of an all-time great pitching staff that would surely bolster the 2015 World Series runner-ups.
Instead, a very good, but not lights-out Jose Fernandez (2.91 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) and the ageless wonder Ichiro have carried a squad without struggling slugger Giancarlo Stanton to second place in the East, 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. The defending NL East Champions could very well miss the playoffs and the Marlins don’t seem to be threatening all too much.
The Nationals have refused to completely put this division away, however. Eight games, or even ten games, is far from an insurmountable lead, and the Nationals have not been playing the type of baseball that inspires confidence. Since the All-Star break, they’ve gone 20-17 in 37 games. Their closest rivals have matched their play, more or less, which means no alarm bells are blaring.
But the continued struggling against top tier teams and the embarrassment of Washington’s performance against the NL West have been concerning. While the season series win against the San Francisco Giants was heartening, a 13-14 performance that included 12 games against the Diamondbacks and Padres was frustrating. At this point, the Dodgers and Giants figure to be Washington’s most likely NLDS opponents, and the Dodgers, the weaker of the two, were worryingly dominant against the Nationals, taking five of six games.
Three of those, a series sweep in Los Angeles in July, were in the middle of the stifling, seven-game losing streak play I hope to remember as the nadir of this season, but dropping two of three in Nationals Park makes me wonder what the Nationals are capable of against this team. And the Giants are ‘even-year’ Giants, whom the Nationals had the misfortune of running into during their last run to a World Series in 2014. Neither option is particularly palatable, but both offer a significant chance to exercise the Nationals — and all of the greater Washington, D.C. area’s — postseason demons.
For now, though, the focus remains on day-to-day play. Plenty of games against in-division rivals remain, and there will be no laurels to rest on until well into September — at best.
As a team, Washington remains full of top-tier potential, but they need to find their stride down the home stretch and overcome recent sputtering from their starting pitching to truly talk postseason. Stephen Strasburg will have a few chances to recover from a nine (!) earned run performance in Colorado when he comes off the DL, and consistent production from Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark continues to be just within reach. But all have stumbled in August, and the fifth starter spot continues to be a major concern, with a patchwork of minor-league starters providing passable but inconsistent starts.
At the plate, the Nationals are showing more promise. While Daniel Murphy has inevitably slowed down his production some, he is still slashing .346/.390/.615 — batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage — and hauling in RBIs. Trea Turner is providing the type of electricity and speed at the leadoff spot, including six triples in the 39 games he has been up, that the Nationals have spent years searching for.
Anthony Rendon’s bat has begun to awaken, and flashes of his 2014 Silver Slugger persona are showing. And finally, Bryce Harper, target of so much scrutiny amidst a mega-slump stretching back to May, has found some consistency in recent weeks, slashing .375/.455/.607 with 3 home runs and 16 RBIs in his last 15 games. It’s still too soon to speak on some kind of ‘return of Bryce Harper,’ but he has not been struggling at the plate in the same way he had been a month ago.
Altogether, the Nationals have set themselves up well for the last 30 games of the year. The depth of talent and production is sufficient to inspire confidence. But with plenty of time still remaining, the Nationals can search for some resolution to the concerns that linger.
There is time to heat up, put the division away, and get into true postseason form, which needs to happen considering the strength of the field (read: Cubs) this year. With hot bats, the Nationals can offset struggling pitching. With consistent pitching, the Nationals can close out a September filled with mediocre teams and clinch the division.
With both, the Nationals become a legitimate postseason threat. September will be a telling month for this team.
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